New Agrarian Voices

Learn about the impressions and experiences of each year's cohort of apprentices in their own words.





Claire Wineman, APPRENTICE, Cooper Creek Ranch, MT

Final Reflections
November 2021

Beyond my insatiable desire to become immersed in and learn something I had virtually no knowledge of before, I think I came to ranching personally to better understand the feeling of lacking control. I have always been the sort of person who moved through life with the futile idea that if I plan and work hard enough, things will go as I hope and expect them to. Becoming an adult and grappling with the reality that so much of my life and the world around me is not in my grasp made me feel like the most minor inconveniences and upsets sent me reeling. What could I do to respond better, to ground myself in discomfort and inability to ever know exactly what’s coming next? 

Early on in my apprenticeship, I had a conversation with a friend about how horrified most people seem to be by the presence of death in their food system, and how many of us will do anything to avoid that reality, or pretend that there is some way for us to have no part in it. But our lives are underpinned by this life/death dichotomy in every way. I have spent so much time subconsciously fearing death, and so much time thinking about how I want to spend my life in order to make that inevitable end mean something. We are constantly confronted with our own death, the death of those we love, the death of those in the world – things that may be out of our control, but which we still play a role in nonetheless by the way we choose to live. 

My time at Cooper Creek began with the loss of fourteen piglets during a farrowing, and for several weeks my mentor and I were consumed with bottle raising and dedicating ourselves to the lone survivor, who we decided to name Hilda. At one point about a month after her birth, when it appeared she was in the clear, I wrote in my journal, “I can hardly believe Hilda is the same animal who I held that first morning of her life, convinced that every moment we spent together was me helping her out of the world rather than into it. Yet it is her, through and through, and I think we’re deeply tied because of that. No part of my day is more special than when I go out to see her and she roots around all over me and climbs up on my chest so we look each other in the eyes and it’s like we’re saying, ‘Thank you for being alive. Thank you for not giving up.’” 

I’ve had a lot of people ask me about how I can stand myself, becoming so close to an animal like that knowing that she is eventually going to die. One friend asked, “If Hilda was butchered now, would you still eat her?” I think it’s easy when you’re a person outside of the direct, day-to-day work of the ag community (because none of us are truly separate or distinct from our food system) to make binary assumptions about the firmly right and wrong aspects of our relationships with animals. Ranching made me believe that my love of animals came to me later in life than it might for others I’ve known because it was a form, a level of compassion that I wasn’t ready for yet – putting yourself in that vulnerable position to bond with, learn from, respect and love someone enough to contribute to keeping them alive, knowing that they will ultimately die. I would much rather eat an animal that I raised personally out of respect for everything we gave each other, instead of one raised in a completely separate, violent environment with whom I did not have that mutual respect and connection. 

In the end, my apprenticeship was marked by a great deal of death: we lost a yearling to grizzly bear predation – one of the scariest moments of my life, to see the bloody fan of her ribs emanating up from the ground and to know there was nothing I could do. We lost more pigs to terrible disease. Sometimes it took every fiber of myself to not turn away, to run in the opposite direction, back to comfort, but as another ranching friend has said, “If I let myself become numb to the reality of death in our line of work, then I know this shouldn’t be my job anymore.” 

And yet, when I reflect deeply on the last eight months, these entanglements with death might seem so emboldened only because I was constantly surrounded by so much incredible, abundant life. I had the honor of witnessing so many calves begin their new lives, to help them into the world; I spent time with pigs each day who revealed their individual personalities and became close friends; I grew one of the most prolific gardens of my life, and nourished the energy system of my body from that work; I was surrounded by a community of the most extraordinary people I could have asked for, who extended so much love and care to me even as I mounted the steepest learning curve and navigated the most challenging growing experience. I became so in tune with the valley that held me and the way it breathes that my body and heart have viscerally hurt since I left it. 

So what about not having any control? Had I lived my apprenticeship in the way I have lived so much of the rest of my life – trying so hard to curate everything to a tee, to happen in the exact way I want it to, and railing against life and God when it didn’t go my way – I don’t think I would have come out of it knowing so much more about myself and the person I hope to grow into. I opened myself up as much as I could to all that life, and all that death, and believe that for a while I was truly able to meet my life halfway. Because maybe when you gently put out into the world what you need – healing, forgiveness, strength, community, understanding – then the world will hand it right back to you in ways you never expected. I received it in the form of a pig. You never know.

May 2021

I became interested in agriculture on May 23, 2018, while reading an article on an airplane about how holistic management of cattle can be used to sequester carbon and build up soil health. At the time I was simply an aspiring earth scientist who hadn’t quite discovered her direction yet, but I did know two things about myself to be deeply true: I have an intense love for all things bovine, and I love to eat, so the notion that cows and soil could help save the planet and provide people with healthy, delicious food naturally caught my eye. 

Agriculture, and specifically soil science, quickly became my area of focus because I realized it formed the ideal middle ground for many of my passions. Not only did soil science provide me with a medium to conduct research and better understand the workings of the natural world, but it created numerous opportunities for me to interact with people in every pocket of our food system – producers, scientists, businesspeople, activists, consumers, etc. – and work on ways to improve how we grow, raise, and distribute food for the betterment of Earth and others. Since then, I have been fortunate to work with public health experts to develop mental health resources for farmers, studied the impacts of compost on leaching heavy metals from urban farm soils in Ohio, pioneered a new method of measuring soil cation exchange capacity in-field in collaboration with Colorado producers, and spent a season growing fresh produce for people around the Denver metro area. I love working in agriculture because I never run out of chances to try new things and meet new folks (and animals!); every role is essential, and I hope to try my hand at every one of them so I can effectively advocate for and work with my colleagues in whatever agricultural field I ultimately end up in. 

From my apprenticeship I hope to gain the opportunity to put everything I have learned so far into the context of the unique environment I’ve found at Cooper Creek Ranch and develop the ability to see and help foster the many connections that exist between land health, animal wellbeing, and the health of local community. On a more personal level, I am working hard to get better at going with the many surprises ranch life holds each day; the learning curve can feel massive and insurmountable at times, but I am slowly learning what an incredible gift it is to have a job that constantly reminds me of the joyful fact that I have so much more to learn. It is a privilege to go to sleep at night knowing there will be more to improve upon tomorrow, and wake up knowing the day will be filled with so many more opportunities to grow. 

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